Paula Mclain's book THE PARIS WIFE, about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, has been on the NEW YORK TIMES best-seller list for a while now. It's a readable, first-person story of Hadley Richardson's life from the time she met Hemingway until their divorce, much of which was spent either in Paris or on the Riviera with the Fitzgeralds, Murphys, and other members of the 1920's gorgeous, hard-drinking, hard-living expatriate artists. Mclain is very careful to label her book "A Novel" (it's in the subtitle). And she sticks to the known facts of who lived where when, who wrote what when, who sent letters to whom and about what.
But if this were a TV show, it would be labelled a "docudrama," not a documentary, and as such it shares the great weakness of such productions: the reader/viewer doesn't know where fact leaves off and invention begins. When Mclain writes of Hadley "I thought this" -- did she really? Did Hemingway really call her shortly before he shot himself to express regret that he had treated her badly ("I ruined it, Tatie.") Did Pauline, who would become his second wife, really slip into Ernest and Hadley's bed in the south of France while both of them were asleep in it?
This all makes me queasy, although I feel hypocritical about the feeling. After all, I love Philippa Gregory's historical novels that do exactly the same thing for Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and the rest of the Tudors -- another hard-drinking, hard-living, promiscuous set. So what's the difference? I'm not even a Hemingway fan.
But somehow, there does seem to be a difference. I just can't decide what it is.